My good friend, the Honorable Jack Grate, is retiring. He does not want to retire but is forced to retire because of an archaic provision in the Missouri Constitution. Article V, Section 26 of the Constitution states that “all judges other than municipal judges shall retire at the age of seventy years.”
I have known Judge Grate since I became a lawyer in 1980. We did not meet in the courtroom, but on a softball field during a lawyers league softball game. My former partner, Jim Cook, put together a ragtag group of lawyers, mostly from Eastern Jackson County, to play in the league. Judge Grate practiced law in Independence and was a member of the team.
It was a “beer league,” which means that many players drank beer during the game. Some even took a can of beer into the field during the game, but we took the game more seriously than some. Many of the big law firms had teams in the league, and there was a natural rivalry between our team and the silk-stocking boys from the big firms.
Some firms had some “ringers” on their teams. I confess that we had a couple on our team, including current Jackson County Legislator Charlie Franklin and Jim Kissick, who recently passed away. Charlie is a C.P.A. and has a law degree but has never practiced law, so he technically complied with the rules. Charlie was a tremendous athlete and could hit a softball a long way, so we were glad he was on our team.
I got to know Judge Grate well during those days as the post-game celebrations usually ended up in a saloon. Great memories abound. After our softball days came to an end, I would occasionally see him at bar association functions and in the courthouse. But our contact became more frequent beginning in January 2001, when I joined my current firm, which shared a building with the judge. For the next three or four years we practiced law together, and I would see him daily.
He was a great lawyer and what I remember most about those days is that he had the cleanest desk of any lawyer I ever knew. He had nothing on his desk but the file he was working on, and I was always impressed by that. I never tried to imitate him, but it was worthy of imitation for sure.
He was appointed to be the judge of Division 17 in Independence in 2004, and so our contact became infrequent again. I would occasionally have a case before him, but we never tried anything in his courtroom in the past 15 years. I always enjoyed speaking with him in chambers. He shared a suite with my dear friend Mike Manners, who was the judge in Division 2, so I frequently was able to see them both when I visited the courthouse.
Judge Grate was widely seen as a very bright judge who was always fair. He had those lawyers, as does any judge, who did not like him. He was very practical, and he knew the law well. I know that he did not suffer fools, so lawyers who were not prepared were not treated as kindly as others.
As I approach my 40th anniversary as a lawyer next May, I can say that my legal career literally began in Division 17. The tradition of most lawyers is to travel to Jefferson City to be sworn in at the Supreme Court along with everyone else who had passed the bar recently. For some reason, I could not attend the ceremony in Jefferson City, so I walked across the street from the law firm that had hired me to be sworn in by Julian Levitt, the first judge ever appointed in Division 17. Judge Levitt died a dozen years ago, but he was widely viewed as one of the best judges on the bench in Jackson County.
Judge Levitt was replaced by a graduate of William Chrisman High School, William Kramer, who served as the judge of Division 17 from 1988 until his retirement in 2004. Judge Kramer shared a similar reputation as Judge Levitt. I never heard anyone complain about Judge Kramer. He was an outstanding judge, although his Chrisman roots made me slightly prejudiced.
Then along came Judge Grate in 2004. Judge Grate grew up in St. Louis and was a big St. Louis Cardinals fan. When he was appointed, his cousin, John Torrence was already serving as a judge in Kansas City and still serves today.
The fourth judge of Division 17 was recently appointed by the governor and by all reports, we have another brilliant judge ready to occupy that sacred seat in Independence, Judge Cory Atkins. Judge Atkins was appointed to be an associate circuit judge 18 months ago and was recently appointed by Governor Parson to ascend to the higher court. Judge Atkins is the second graduate of Truman High School to be appointed to the circuit bench in Jackson County. Mike Manners, from the class of 1968 was the first. Truman High School alumni should be very proud.
At some point soon a portrait of Judge Grate will hang in his courtroom in Independence beside Judge Levitt and Judge Kramer. No courtroom in Jackson County has ever had better judges throughout its history.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com . Email him at email@example.com